LOS ANGELES — It was a pose that is natural for a pitcher in his position, but so foreign to the Chicago Cubs over the entirety of the season. As Justin Turner’s drive blazed over the Dodger Stadium fence Tuesday night, Jake Arrieta, the man who gave it up, bent at the waist. These are the Cubs currently, in a position in which they have not been since last October: doubled-over, uncertain how to get upright.
This postseason now has a moment, the first in which its freight train of a story line could jump the rails: The Los Angeles Dodgers, by virtue of their 6-0 victory Tuesday night, lead the Cubs in the National League Championship Series, two games to one. And for the first time in 2016, there are tiny bits of doubt in corners of Chicago’s clubhouse.
“We need to have better approaches — as a team,” Cubs catcher Miguel Montero said. “Not just one guy or two guys. I think that’s overall, we have to have a better approach. I think we’re trying to do too much. I think we’re all trying to be heroes here.”
Tuesday, the heroes all wore home white. It is worth praising Rich Hill, the 36-year-old left-hander who summoned six scoreless innings — allowing just two hits and two walks — because he was excellent. It is worth analyzing the swing of Yasmani Grandal, who sent a 3-2 Arrieta fastball out to right-center in the fourth, a two-run homer that gave the Dodgers a three-run advantage. And it is worth noting Turner’s own bomb, which came off a slider that was both Arrieta’s first pitch of the sixth and his last pitch of the night.
But what we have here, now, are the Cubs in a deficit, something they simply have not faced this season. A year ago, they were swept in the NLCS by the New York Mets. They have essentially been favorites since the moment that series ended. They won their first three games of the year en route to a 25-6 start. They followed their manager’s mantra and, as Joe Maddon said, “embraced the target.”
“We’re here for a reason,” said third baseman Kris Bryant, one of the few Cubs who looks like himself at the plate. “Belief is very powerful, and I think we all have that.”
Their belief on Wednesday will have to be in right-hander John Lackey. But it must also be in a lineup that has fallen inexplicably silent. Some key elements, in no particular order:
Anthony Rizzo, 2 for 26 in the postseason; Addison Russell, 1 for 24; Jason Heyward, 2 for 19; Ben Zobrist, 4 for 26. Those are all regulars for a team that was outscored by just two others over the course of the season, a team that was shut out six times but now hasn’t scored in back-to-back games. That same team has now combined for six hits and seven total bases in the past two games.
Sunday night, when Clayton Kershaw and closer Kenley Jansen combined for that work in a 1-0 Dodgers victory, Cubs fans could process it. But Hill, Joe Blanton and Grant Dayton before Jansen appeared with two outs in the eighth? That was harder to explain.
“We’re not hitting the ball hard,” Maddon said. “They’ve pitched well. Obviously, I have no solid explanation. . . . There is really no excuse. We just have to pick it up quickly.”
To increase the unlikeness of all this, understand that the Dodgers can’t say with any degree of certainty who will pitch beyond Wednesday’s Game 4. In that game, Los Angeles will trot out 20-year-old rookie Julio Urias. This is natural, given Urias’s standing as perhaps the best pitching prospect in the game. It is wholly odd, though, given Urias has thrown just 10⅔ innings since Sept. 2, as the Dodgers have coddled him through a season in which they wanted to minimize the burden on his dazzling young arm.
“It definitely didn’t go according to the script that we had laid out in spring training,” said Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations.
That’s because the entire season didn’t go according to the script that the club laid out in spring training — for the staff as a whole. Hill and Urias were just two of the 15 pitchers who started games for Los Angeles this season. Because so many Dodgers were hurt so often — they placed 28 different players on the disabled list at some point during the year, setting a new major league record — they often woke up on a Sunday with no idea who would pitch that Wednesday.
“I think we had more meetings discussing our upcoming starters than I had in my previous 10 years of being a GM — combined,” Friedman said.
The Dodgers’ rotation was so frail that only one other team, abysmal Cincinnati, coaxed fewer innings out of its starting pitchers. And that has continued in the postseason. Before Tuesday night, Kershaw had covered 18⅔ innings over the course of his three playoff starts (and added another two outs from the bullpen). In the Dodgers’ four other playoff games, their starters had combined for 14 innings.
All this made Hill’s effort surprising. Such is the fragile state of the Dodgers’ rotation that when Hill walked two men in the second, it wasn’t clear he would get to pitch beyond that. “I was thinking about it a little bit,” Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts said. But by getting 18 outs, Hill looked to Los Angeles like a workhorse.
With one out in the ninth and Jansen slinging his cutter, Rizzo took a swing that splintered his bat into matchsticks. The ball dribbled on the infield. It became his second hit of the postseason — and an odd symbol of hope for the flailing Cubs.
“Pieces of wood flying everywhere — that’s the hit that we needed,” Bryant said. “He’s going to feed off of that. That’s the thing that you see spark a team.”
But now, trailing in the series, it doesn’t matter how the Cubs get a spark. They must, at some point, hit. They must, at some point, score runs. They are, for the first time in a year, perilously close to a must-win game. Doubled-over, they must stand back up.